The regular season completed today with Ottawa's victory over Boston. Now I am going to post my traditional if I had an award ballot post, where I list who I would have voted for if I had a vote in the NHL Awards that most interest me.
Calder Trophy: 1. Jonathan Huberdeau Florida Panthers 2. Nail Yakupov Edmonton Oilers 3. Jonas Brodin Minnesota Wild. Here is where I picked Huberdeau for the award. He did very well in a bad situation with few talented teammates. This forced Huberdeau into a tough role and he still scored. I think the shortened season affected this trophy race and with a full length season it would probably look very different from the way it looks right now. The top rookies would have been scouted better by opposition and some would not hold up as well to the increased pressure that comes with it. Young players may have spent the first twenty or thirty games getting comfortable in their NHL role and now are ready to shine. I am not convinced this grouping of players will be the best threesome of this season's rookies but they are the ones who showed us the most in their first NHL season.
I have written a couple posts about teams that are having results that break from recent history by qualifying or not qualifying for the playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs are an example of a team that made the playoffs that is a change from their recent past and the Philadelphia Flyers missing the playoffs are an example of a team that has regularly made playoffs recently. The biggest surprise playoff qualifier so far is likely the New York Islanders. They last qualified for the playoffs in 2007.
I think the Islanders are an example of a team that has benefitted from the shortened season. I do not see them as a team that could sustain this level of play in an 82 game season. They don't have the talent but they have improved from their worst days and are good enough to get hot for a while and thus make playoffs in a shortened season. The Isles qualified for playoffs with such a streak. In their first eleven games in April they did not lose any games in regulation. They had 8 wins and 3 regulation tie losses. A run of 19 points out of a possible 22 is very strong and that is what cemented their playoff berth. Unfortunately for the team they lost their final three games, so it looks like their hot streak has come to an end before the playoffs begin.
I try to monitor what time in a player's career he becomes a clear Hall of Famer. At what point is he a Hall of Fame player regardless of what happens in the rest of his career? I think Sergei Gonchar has passed that point.
Gonchar has been one of the better defencemen in the league for well over a decade. He has never been the best defenceman in the league but he was good enough to make the NHL Second Team All Star twice. Had he been stronger defensively he probably would have been a Norris Trophy winner at some point. His defensive play has improved over his career but it was a weakness fifteen years ago. His career numbers have reached the point that they are clear Hall of Fame numbers and this is remarkable given the fact that he played in a relatively low scoring era with the loss of 1.5 seasons due to lockouts (and possibly the 1994 lockout as that shortened his rookie season). In a different higher scoring era, a player of Gonchar's ability would have even more impressive career numbers.
Nine of the sixteen playoff spots this season have been clinched. The remainder will clinch over the next few days. I think we have found the most unlikely playoff team based upon recent history. The Toronto Maple Leafs have clinched their first playoff berth since 2004. This is the first time they will appear in the playoffs since the adoption of the salary cap. In part this happened in part because Toronto no longer was able to use their financial muscle to buy up enough free agents to keep their team barely at playoff level with little plan of how to build a stronger team. The salary cap forced them to build a legitimate contender and it is a long process.
Their process got underway properly when they hired Brian Burke. It took him the better part of four seasons to right the ship and as soon as they were ready to make the playoffs, he was fired. Burke's job wasn't over but it was on the right track and the new Leaf ownership wasn't smart enough to see it.
Dave Nonis is the new Leaf GM. He has most of his experience in Brian Burke systems in Vancouver and Toronto. Hopefully he has learned enough to follow Burke's process through fruition.
In a shortened season there is a greater uncertainty in the final standings than normal. A run of good or bad luck will have a bigger impact in the standings than it does in an 82 game season. Perhaps the team that will miss the playoffs that is the biggest change from recent results is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers have made the playoffs each of the last five years and advanced past the first round four of those times. In 2010 they made the Stanley Cup finals. This year they will watch the playoffs on television.
The Flyers currently stand in 12th place in the East Conference. They have three games remaining and are seven points back of the eighth place New York Rangers. They have no mathematical chance of making the playoffs this year.
On the short term the Flyers biggest reason for missing the playoffs is their goaltending. Ilya Bryzgalov has been their number one goalie and he isn't having a strong season. He is posting a .898 saves percentage and a 2.84 GAA. In fact newly acquired Steve Mason is posting better numbers so far this year and he is not having a strong season either. The bigger problem is the opportunity cost that came with making Bryzgalov their number one goalie. It has forced the trading of Vezina candidate Sergei Bobrovsky to Columbus. It also forced the trading of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter who were significant parts of Los Angeles's Stanley Cup victory last year. With these pieces Philadelphia would almost certainly be a playoff team.
A little over a week ago I picked Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators as the top defenceman so far this season. He is a very talented defenceman who had come into form after a slow start and was moving up into the top scoring defencemen this season while maintaining his top defensive play in a tough situation. Since that time Weber has gone -4 with no points scored. When I picked Weber, he was replacing Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins who was my previous pick and out injured. Letang soon returned from injury and has five points and is +3 since that time. I think that Kris Letang has re-established himself as the Norris Trophy leader this season.
Probably there shouldn't be a Norris Trophy winner this season. Nobody is having a year that is worthy of the award. This is partly due to a shortened season and partly due to injury to top defencemen. Letang is second in scoring among defencemen with 33 points in 31 games. His Pittsburgh team has 43 games played. The only defenceman with more points than Letang is PK Subban of Montreal. He too has missed some games with an early season holdout and doesn't play as well defensively or as big a role as Letang does. Other candidates for best defenceman exist including Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Kimmo Timonen, Zdeno Chara and Dion Phaneuf. While they may have been good enough to be all stars it is hard to call any the top defenceman in the league this year.
It is kind of hard to say any player this season is worthy of the Norris Trophy, but since we must pick someone, I pick Kris Letang. Yes he has missed time to injury, but I think he has been more valuable to his team than any other defenceman in the league has.
In mid-March I picked Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins as the Selke Trophy leader. He had surpassed Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, who had been my previous leader. Since that time Bergeron suffered a concussion and has missed the last couple weeks of games. Thus I think Toews is again the Selke Trophy leader.
Toews plays against Chicago's toughest opposition and shuts them down. He has a +27 +/- rating leading the West Conference. He is a strong Selke Trophy candidate.
Today the Edmonton Oilers fired their general manager Steve Tambellini today. I'm not sure how much power he actually held as a general manager. Tambellini was hired as the Oiler GM in 2008 but he served as somewhat of a frontman for Kevin Lowe, their previous GM who had been promoted to president. Lowe had run the Oilers into the ground and would not have survived as general manager much longer. Instead he found somebody else to use as a shield while he and his cohort ran the team. Tambellini never really showed much of a plan as Oiler GM other than collecting top draft picks and it isn't clear how much of the plan was actually his.
The new general manager Craig MacTavish is a former Oiler head coach. He was fired in 2009 but remained in Kevin Lowe's braintrust. I think his major qualification is being a longtime friend and teammate of Kevin Lowe. MacTavish is the new shield for Lowe's run of the Oilers. Perhaps he will take more control of the team than Tambellini did. Perhaps he will be able to succeed as Oiler GM. They have a good group of young offensive players who will likely be a strong core in the future but they are in need of goaltending and defence. It is possible to make something out of this team but that is unlikely if Lowe continues to unsuccessfully pull the strings from behind his puppet GM.
I have chosen a rather mundane title for this post because from an NHL standpoint this probably isn't a significant story. The Boston Bruins have signed Carl Soderberg to a three year contract worth $1 million per year. This season counts as the first season of the three so he will not play many games in his first "year". Boston has seven regular season games left this year plus their playoff run.
Carl Soderberg was the second highest scorer in the Swedish Elite League this season. This is his highest scoring season to date in Sweden. He has been reasonably successful in international play, especially in his days in the World Junior Hockey Championships, so he has been on NHL radar for years. At age 27, he will make his NHL debut.
He isn't a serious candidate for the "best player outside the NHL" - that is an award I would give to Alexander Radulov and Radulov wasn't good enough to steal games last year in the playoffs. In fact Radulov's major contribution to the NHL last year was his negative attitude that helped to lead to Nashville's early demise in the playoffs. As Soderberg is a lesser player, I would not expect even that big a contribution - but at least he wants to be there.
Slightly over two weeks ago when I last looked at the AHL scoring race nothing was clear. There was a three-way tie atop the race between Gustav Nyquist of the Grand Rapids Griffins (Detroit Red Wing affiliate), Jeff Taffe of the Hershey Bears (Washington Capital affiliate) and TJ Hensick of the Peoria Rivermen (St Louis Blue affiliate). Three more players were within two points of the threesome.
Nyquist has been removed for the scoring race since he has been in the NHL. Taffe and Hensick remain among the top scorers but another player has taken the lead. Brandon Pirri of the Rockford IceHogs (Chicago Blackhawk affiliate) has taken the lead. He has fourteen points in his seven April games to date. A big part of that was accomplished in his six point night against the Chicago Wolves (Vancouver Canuck affiliate) yesterday. This gives Pirri 70 points on the season and a five point lead over Jeff Taffe.
Pirri is a 22 year old with six career NHL games (though none yet this year). He was the Blackhawks second round draft pick in 2009. He is in his third AHL season after a one year stay in the NCAA. He has some potential as an NHL player and may get a chance as the Blackhawks expand their roster in the playoffs. He has built a lead in the scoring race with his recent hot streak. Since there are only a few games left per team, he will be hard to catch for anyone and it is only recently he became a serious candidate to win the scoring race.
About The Puck Stops Here
Who am I? A diehard hockey fan.
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